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Wool ups its athleisure game

Campaign for wool (1)

Technical innovation is making wool increasingly attractive to the athleisure market.

Most gym kits are made up of comfortable cotton or figure-hugging, high-performance synthetic fibres. But wool – particularly merino wool – ­is becoming an increasingly important fibre in the athleisure market, as brands combine technical innovations with its natural properties.

Benefits of wool include moisture absorption, temperature regulation and resistance to bacteria, as well as a natural elasticity that allows garments to stretch and shrink with the wearer. Sometimes referred to as “the original performance fibre”, sports giant Adidas is among those incorporating wool into running T-shirts, sports bras and sweatshirts to give customers the best possible performance.

Brands are finding new uses for wool in performancewear

Nicolas Coleridge, chairman of the Campaign for Wool

“There is so much happening in wool at the moment,” explains Nicolas Coleridge, chairman of the Campaign for Wool, which was started by the Prince of Wales 10 years ago in a bid to halt the decline of the global wool industry. “Brands are finding new uses for wool in performancewear. There are also new uses being discovered in other industries: from next year there will be surfboards made from wool, and it is even being used in packaging to keep food and medicine fresh.”

Natural movement

Brands are also taking a more forward-thinking approach to using wool in activewear, weaning customers off a reliance on synthetic fibres. Some of latest technical innovations using wool were unveiled at Cornwall’s Porthtowan Beach earlier this month, where the Campaign for Wool set up a pop-up to highlight the versatility of the fibre. Products on display included a wetsuit made with merino wool, part of a collaboration between Prada and the Woolmark Company. The wetsuit will be worn by the Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli sailing team, who wanted to move away from uniforms made from synthetic fibres to reduce their environmental impact, during the America’s Cup race in 2021.

Wool – and specifically merino – is a kind of wonder technical fibre

Deborah Luffman, Finisterre

British surf brand Finisterre showcased some of its products made using merino wool, which include activewear, underwear and base layers, at the pop-up. Founded in 2003, Finisterre aims to protect hardy surfers from the elements, as well as offering outdoor and activewear. It blends merino wool with sustainable fibres such as Tencel.

“Wool – and specifically merino – is a kind of wonder technical fibre, which is surprising when you think that it is also one of oldest fibres,” product direct Deborah Luffman tells Drapers. “When you get out of the sea, it lies flat against your skin. If you try and drag on a pair of cotton leggings, they will stick to your skin, whereas wool is smooth and glides. It is fantastic for thermal regulation.”

New from old

Luffman adds that one of the most exciting innovations in the fibre is the growing potential of recycled wool: “As brand, we’re using it more and more as a way to replace polyester fleece, which creates microfibres that can contaminate the environment. Microfibres are a big concern at the moment, so finding an alternative is key.

“Using recycled wool is still fairly new. People can be negative about recycled wool because it isn’t as durable, but it produces short fibres that make it perfect for fleece.”

Knit structures now are lighter than ever before, which is good for technical products 

Andy Caughey is founder and managing director of Armadillo Merino

Andy Caughey is founder and managing director of Armadillo Merino, which equips people working in high-risk environments – such as police, the fire service, the military and astronauts – with protective merino clothing.

Campaign for wool (6)

“Knit structures now are lighter than ever before, which is good for technical products because people want the same amount of comfort but from lighter and lighter clothing,” he explains. “We’ve been able to create some wool mesh products that work incredibly well at moving heat and sweat away from the body. It goes against everything people traditionally think about wool, but we can even use the mesh for jungle forces because of its properties.”

Wool comes from a natural, renewable source and is biodegradable, if finished correctly with synthetic fibres.

“It seems mad to keep using more and more synthetic fibres,” says Coleridge. “It can take up to 700 years for synthetic clothing to degrade, so towards the end of this millennium there will be clothes we’ve worn still sitting in landfill.” 

Luffman explains that, although Finisterre combines its wool with other fibres – believing it gives a better performance – she is excited about the possibilities of blending wool with biodegradable nylon.

“The challenge we face is that wool performs better when blended with man-made products, which means you lose some of the biodegradable benefits. However, the next big thing on the horizon – and which we hope use soon – is recycled nylon. Being able to blend it with wool that would tick all the boxes for us.”

Wool’s natural properties – particularly when it comes to masking odours, regulating temperature and sustainable potential – make it a natural fit for the athleisure market. Innovation from brands and a growing understanding of its properties mean consumers’ gym bags could soon be dominated by the fibre.



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